3 Modes of Persuasion — Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

July 19, 2023

When structuring an argument, whether verbally or in written form, it is important to consider not only the ideas but the ways in which they might be persuasive. This article will explore the three primary modes of persuasion—ethos, pathos, and logos—and demonstrate the various ways you might use them to your advantage. They fall under the heading of rhetoric, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others.” These three modes of persuasion were first detailed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. We’ll begin with the question, what is ethos in persuasion? Then we’ll discuss the pathos persuasive technique and, finally, logos in persuasion.

What Is Ethos in Persuasion?

While the term “ethos” may be unfamiliar you have certainly encountered its use in your day-to-day life. Of the three modes of persuasion, ethos is one that appeals to the speaker’s character or expertise. (The word itself has roots in the Latin and Greek words for “character.”) In this sense the use of ethos is contextual. It relies on some degree of shared knowledge between speaker and listener.

Here are two examples of ethos in practice:

  1. “As a licensed nutritionist, I strongly recommend you eliminate dairy from your diet.”
  2. “As a scholar of baroque architecture, I can assure you this local church is nothing out of the ordinary.”

What Is Ethos in Persuasion? (Continued)

Both of these examples use a common construction (“As a…”) in order to establish authority. This construction foregrounds the use of ethos and, as you might notice in the second example, can create a somewhat condescending tone. When we’re looking for it, this particular use of ethos is quite obvious. In everyday usage, however, we often find subtle ways of establishing authority. This might mean citing names or ideas or using a particular linguistic register. Ethos is working on a subtle level far more often than we realize. So, it’s important to keep asking ourselves, what is ethos in persuasion? Whether or not we recognize it for what it is, the persuasive effect is undeniable.

What Is Ethos in Persuasion? — Endorsements

Endorsements—by celebrities, authorities, or other trusted figures—are another example of ethos functioning as one of the modes of persuasion. Do political endorsements ever affect your choice of which candidate to support? How about a blurb on the back cover of a book? If a writer you admire—or a Nobel Prize winner or a former heavyweight champion of the world—describes the book as “life-changing” or a “must-read” or “absolutely spellbinding from start to finish” does it make you want to check out the book for yourself?

Pathos Persuasive Technique

Pathos, the second of the three modes of persuasion, involves an appeal to emotion. This is different from the speaker establishing their own authority. With the pathos persuasive technique, a speaker attempts to stir up emotion in their listener. This is in an effort to bring them to a desired conclusion. There is a wide range of emotions that one might appeal to when using pathos as mode of persuasion. In Rhetoric, Aristotle identified seven emotional dichotomies. These are:

  1. Anger/Calmness
  2. Friendship/Enmity
  3. Fear/Confidence
  4. Shame/Shamelessness
  5. Kindness/Unkindness
  6. Pity/Indignation
  7. Envy/Emulation

The pathos persuasive technique might involve creating one of these emotions. Thereby the listener might become more receptive to a desired conclusion. On the other hand, the pathos persuasive technique could involve counteracting one of these emotions in the direction of its opposite. It is often effective to move across these dichotomies, activating a nuanced spectrum of emotion in the listener.

For example, if a speaker is attempting to build political support it could be useful to drum up anger towards their opposition. At the same, however, too much reliance on anger will eventually become apparent to an audience. To this end, the speaker will want to fold in moments of calm reflection and create empathy toward the people they are promising to help. This technique would engage with a number of the dichotomies listed above, perhaps most clearly Anger/Calmness and Friendship/Enmity.

Pathos Persuasive Technique — Literary Devices

Literary devices are excellent tools for incorporating the pathos persuasive technique into your writing and speech. Literary devices can create rhythms and emphasize sonic or structural qualities that are particularly compelling. These effects will likely be familiar to you from English classrooms. A rhyme scheme or a metrical pattern, for example, can make a conclusion feel inevitable. Consider for instance the final stanza of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” (In this context, “thou” refers to the urn.) Keats writes,

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Isn’t there a sense that this is the only way the poem could’ve ended? That this is the only adequate conclusion? This early 19th-century literary example is clearly quite different from how you will be using the pathos persuasive technique. It does demonstrate, however, how pathos can operate through the use of literary devices. How language itself (rather than what’s being said) can be inherently persuasive. To this end, there is a wide range of literary devices that it will be helpful to familiarize yourself with.

Logos in Persuasion

Logos in persuasion refers to a mode of persuasion that relies on logic-based reason. This means structuring an argument in terms of premises (which are similar to hypotheses), supporting evidence, and conclusions. Deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning are two types of logic that it will be helpful to understand.

Logos in Persuasion — Deductive Reasoning

Deductive reasoning involves proving that a conclusion is incontrovertibly true. This is based on the truth of its premises and the ways in which they lead to a conclusion. Here is an example.

  • Premise 1: Napoleon was human.
  • Premise 2: All humans have mothers.
  • Conclusion: Napoleon had a mother.

This example is based on the logical rule that if A=B and B=C then A=C. This rule, however, doesn’t imply that the premises are true (i.e. that A=B and B=C). The conclusion can only be proven to be true if the premises are taken to be true as well. In this example, there isn’t much to argue with, but the logical structure also has the potential to give a false impression of validity.

Logos in Persuasion — Inductive Reasoning

The above example of deductive reasoning proves (or at least claims to prove) the truth of a specific statement. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, often brings us to more general conclusions. Instead of resulting in a definite, provable conclusion, inductive reasoning results in a probable one. This is the form of reasoning that we use most commonly in our day to day lives. While not definitive, inductive reasoning leads to valid conclusions that are often more compelling than those arrived at through deductive reasoning. As mentioned already, deductive reasoning can at times feel manipulative and overly formal.

Logos in Persuasion — Inductive Reasoning (Inference)

Inference is one of the most common forms of inductive reasoning. An inference is defined most simply as “an idea or conclusion that’s drawn from evidence and meaning.” This could mean recognizing a pattern and reaching a conclusion based on that. For example, based on the fact that the sun has risen each morning for as long as I can remember, I can infer that the sun will rise again tomorrow morning. The conclusion here is that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. The logic doesn’t prove this conclusion—the earth could stop rotating or the sun could suddenly extinguish—but, as you can tell, it’s still quite persuasive.

3 Modes of Persuasion — Practical Applications

Having a clear sense of these three modes of persuasion will be helpful when it comes to constructing an argument in a wide variety of contexts. These are good to keep in mind in the context of a job interview or when writing a statement of purpose for graduate school or even when you’re struggling to convey an idea to a friend.

Thinking in terms of ethos, pathos and logos is an especially good way to improve your public speaking skills. A dynamic speech will generally incorporate each of these modes of persuasion. So, if it feels like something might be missing, or if the tone of your speech seems to slacken, one recourse is to identify the modes of persuasion you are using and to find ways of incorporating others.

A speech that relies entirely on the pathos persuasive technique, for example, could start to feel somewhat redundant. If it goes on for too long it could appear to lack a logical argument or sense of authority. Switching to logos in persuasion or asking yourself, what is ethos in persuasion?, are good ways to keep the listener on their toes. When the listener gets the sense that they know exactly what will come next they often tune out. Even a powerful, and morally justified, appeal to anger will begin to seem rote after some time. Just as an excessive reliance on one’s character or authority (ethos) could have the listener rolling their eyes.

3 Modes of Persuasion — Final Thoughts

As a way to remember the three modes of persuasion, it will be helpful to associate one word with each of them. For ethos, think character. For pathos, think emotion. With logos, just change the last two letters and you have “logic.”

For further practice, try going through a piece of persuasive writing and sorting the paper into the modes of persuasion it is employing. You can use a different colored highlighter for each mode. Likewise, this can also be a good way to edit your own writing. Organizing arguments according to the mode they are employing will give you a sense of the piece’s balance. This can offer insight into how you might revise. It’s important to consider the audience and how the piece will likely be received. Depending on context, different balances of ethos, pathos, and logos will be desired. A political speech, for instance, might rely on pathos while an academic paper should be more heavily skewed towards logos.

In addition to ethos, pathos, and logos—which we can think of as rhetorical modes—there are a number of rhetorical devices that it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with. These devices will offer a plethora of ways to deploy your understanding of the three modes of persuasion, providing a template for how you might keep a reader or listener engaged.